Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 27, 1985, Page 2


Victims: Past and Future

From the emotion attending 40th anniversary observances of the end of World War II and of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, one thing emerged clearly. For any ethnic, linguistic or religious group that has suffered tragedy in this century, its own experience stands out from all others as uniquely deserving of personal grief, public recognition, and acknowledgement of guilt by those responsible. When all of this is achieved, unfortunately, there is a temptation by the victims, and their descendents, to exploit it.

Jacobo Timmerman, an Argentine Zionist, put it bluntly when he wrote: "The Holocaust and the moral content of the Jewish tragedy have suffered a grave degradation in the hands of those who have used them to justify the invasion of Lebanon in particular, and Israeli foreign policy in general."

We agree, but to make our point dispassionately let us first look away from the Holocaust, the continuing tragedy of the Palestinians, and some of our own historical problems, like the treatment of Indians and blacks, to the tragic case of the Armenians.

No one questions the fact that a great many Armenians died during the World War I era and that by the time it ended they had lost their ancestral lands in Eastern Turkey. Equally, we think, no rational person believes this is justification for present-day Armenians to kill present-day Turkish diplomats.

One can feel many things about the Armenians: It is natural for them to grieve for all those who died. It is deplorable, however, to cite inhumane acts of 70 years ago to justify inhumane acts today aimed at carving an Armenian state out of Turkish lands. And it is prudent to suspect that arms and funds used by young Armenian terrorists come from one or two opportunistic neighboring countries that either fear the present-day Turks or have their own dreams about Turkish lands. In thinking all of these things—and concluding that while the Armenian grievance deserves to be understood and thus, perhaps, ameliorated, Armenian terrorism must be stopped—one is not being either anti-Armenian or anti-Turkish but rather rational, practical and humane.

What does the Armenian-Turkish problem, which is just beginning to claim new victims in our era, have to do with the Arab-Israeli problem, which already has claimed perhaps 150,000 lives (including victims of Lebanon's Civil War) with no end in sight? Both Israelis and Palestinians mourn their dead and yearn to salvage some meaning and purpose from the wholesale loss of innocent lives. But those who exploit such losses to justify new acts of inhumanity aimed at attaining their own ends are on their way to becoming as guilty as their historic persecutors, and are far more dangerous to us, the living.

Americans seem to agree that although it is understandable for Palestinians to seek compensation for massacred families and restoration of stolen lands, if they use terrorist means, they must be stopped. Why then is it so difficult for us to apply the same logic to the Israelis when they use terrorist means—either as individuals like Meir Kahane harassing West Bank residents, or as a nation forcibly seizing Palestinian lands for Israeli settlements and bombing and strafing Palestinian refugee camps? Israelis use the Holocaust—and more recent tragedies—as justification for these terrorist acts, but in fact their goal is to retain permanently they have seized by force. This terrorism, too, must be stopped completely if there is to be a just and peaceful settlement of the grievances that already have created so many victims on both sides in the Middle East.

It is of no importance whether children who died in Turkish deserts, in Nazi gas chambers, in Palestinian villages, in Israeli border settlements or in Lebanese cities were Christians, Jews or Muslims. We can honor and grieve for all of them, but we cannot bring any of them back. We can, however, seek to understand the specific passions and grievances that caused their deaths, and use what we learn to save others from becoming new victims.

Our first concern, as Americans, should be to make sure that nothing we say or do at home will condone or help set in motion future tragedies abroad. This is not so complicated, if we examine carefully the advice offered us.

Every Jew is entitled to remind us every day of the Holocaust. But any Jew who fails to protest with equal vehemence each time a West Bank teenager is killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers, is a bigot who is best ignored. Every Arab is entitled to remind us every day of Qibya, Samua and Tel Zaatar, but if he fails to protest with equal vehemence each time a Jew is killed in a synagogue in Europe, he is a hypocrite from whom we have nothing to learn. Any American who deplores one kind of persecution, but rationalizes another, is also best disregarded.

If we ignore all the chauvinists, bigots and opportunists who view such persecutions selectively, and if we listen only to the truly compassionate and impartial, it will be possible for Americans to recognize the injustices most important to us: Those that can still be set right. And the victims most important to us: Those that can still be saved.

We will find that a disproportionate share of these victims are Palestinians. Theirs is a holocaust we Americans have the power to halt.

Richard Curtiss